In the August 12 issue, former Commonweal intern Andy Whinery (now at the New York Review of Books) reviews David Brooks's The Social Animal. Andy has some good things to say about the problems with Brooks's method, but his deepest criticism has to do with Brooks's generally opportunistic attitude to scientific research.

Although Brooks is eager to line his political philosophy with the prestige of the scientific methodthe circumspect gathering and parsimonious interpretation of factshis commitment to that method is provisional. He wants science to remind us how much of our lives falls outside our self-consciousness, how much is subject to conditions over which we have no direct control. Yet he doesnt want the workings of the unconscious to become too predictable, because that might make them subject to rational control after all. The point, for Brooks, is not so much to understand the unconscious as to humble the conscious mind so that well consider its deliberations less decisive. And when we do have to deliberate (about public policy, for example), Brooks thinks the aim should be to nudge people in the right direction, rather than to control or to persuade them rationally. Good leaders offer the public not well-formed arguments but the right incentives.

Call it technocratic conservatism: the belief that, since what's fundamental to our decision-making (personal or collective) is unconscious habit rather than rationality, politicians should look for ways to shape (or nudge, or manipulate) the public's unconscious habits for the public good. It's a soft version of Huxley's Brave New World cloaked in the rhetoric of Edmund Burke and tricked out with pop-science accessories.Read Andy's whole review here if you're a subscriber. And if you're not, subscribe!

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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